Sociology, as conceivedby Simmel, did not pretend to usurp the subject matter of economics,ethics, psychology, or historiography; rather, it concentrated on theforms of interactions that underlie political, economic, religious, andsexual behavior. In Simmel's perspective a host of otherwise distincthuman phenomena might be properly understood by reference to the sameformal concept. To be sure, the student of warfare and the student ofmarriage investigate qualitatively different subject matters, yet thesociologist can discern essentially similar interactive forms in martialconflict and in marital conflict. Although there is little similaritybetween the behavior displayed at the court of Louis XIV and thatdisplayed in the main offices of an American corporation, a study of theforms of subordination and superordination in each will revealunderlying patterns common to both. On a concrete and descriptivelevel, there would seem little connection between the earlypsychoanalytic movement in Vienna and the early Communist movement, butattention to typical forms of interaction among the members of thesegroups reveals that both are importantly shaped by the fact that theyhave the structural features of the sect. Sectarians are characterizedin their conduct by the belief that they share an esoteric knowledgewith their fellow sectarians and are hence removed from the world of thevulgar. This leads to intense and exclusive involvements of thesectarians with one another and concomitant withdrawal from "outside"affairs.
Simmel's insistence on the forms of social interactionas the domain peculiar to sociological inquiry was his decisive responseto those historians and other representatives of the humanities whodenied that a science of society could ever come to grips with thenovelty, the irreversibility, and the uniqueness of historical phenomena. Simmel agreed that particular historical events are unique: the murderof Caesar, the accession of Henry VIII, the defeat of Napoleon atWaterloo are all events located at a particular moment in time andhaving a nonrecurrent significance. Yet, if one looks at historythrough the peculiar lenses of the sociologist, one need not concernhimself with the uniqueness of these events but, rather, with theirunderlying uniformities. The sociologist does not contribute toknowledge about the individual actions of a King John, or a King Louis,or a King Henry, but he can illuminate the ways in which all of themwere constrained in their actions by the institution of kingship. Thesociologist is concerned with King John, not with King John. On a more abstract level, he may not even be concerned with theinstitution of kingship, but rather with the processes of conflict andcooperation, of subordination and superordination, of centralizationand decentralization, which constitute the building blocks for thelarger institutional structure. In this way, Simmel wanted to develop ageometry of social life: "Geometric abstraction investigates only thespatial forms of bodies, although empirically these forms are givenmerely as the forms of some material content. Similarly, if society isconceived as interaction among individuals, the description of the formsof this interaction is the task of the science of society in itsstrictest and most essential sense."
Simmel's insistence onabstracting from concrete content and concentrating on the forms ofsocial life has led to the labeling of his approach as formalsociology. However, his distinction between the form and the content ofsocial phenomena is not always as clear as we should like. He gavevariant definitions of these concepts, and his treatment of particulartopics reveals some obvious inconsistencies. The essence of histhought, nevertheless, is clear. Formal sociology isolates form fromthe heterogeneity of content of human sociation. It attempts to showthat however diverse the interests and purposes that give rise tospecific associations among men, the social forms of interaction inwhich these interests and purposes are realized may be identical. Forexample, both war and profit-making involve cooperation. Inversely,identical interests and purposes may crystallize into different forms. Economic interests may be realized in competition as well as in plannedcooperation, and aggressive drives may be satisfied in various forms ofconflict from gang warfare to legal battles.
In formal analysis,certain features of concrete phenomena, which are not readily observableunless such a perspective is applied to them, are extracted fromreality. Once this has been successfully accomplished, it becomespossible to compare phenomena that may be radically different inconcrete content yet essentially similar in structural arrangement. Forexample, leader-follower relations may be seen to be structurally thesame both in deviant juvenile gangs and in conformist scout troops. Onthis point Simmel is often misunderstood: he was not asserting thatforms have a separate and distinct existence, but that they inhere incontent and can have no independent reality. Simmel's was far from aPlatonic view of essences. He stressed that concrete phenomena could bestudied from a variety of perspectives and that analysis of the limitednumber of forms which could be extracted from the bewilderingmultiplicity of social contents might contribute insights into sociallife denied those who limit themselves to descriptions of the concrete.
The term form was perhaps not a very happy choice since it isfreighted with a great deal of philosophical ballast, some of it of arather dubious nature. It may have frightened away certain modernsociologists intent on exorcising any metaphysical ghosts that mightinterfere with the building of a scientific sociology. Had Simmel usedthe term social structure--which, in a sense, is quite close tohis use of form--he would have probably encountered lessresistance. Such modern sociological terms as status, role, norms,and expectations as elements of social structure are close tothe formal conceptualizations that Simmel employed.
Futhermore,much of the building of modern sociological theory proceeds preciselywith the help of the perspective that Simmel has advocated. Forexample, in a reanalysis of some of the data of The American Soldier,Merton and Rossi, when explaining the behavior of "green" troops andtheir relationships with seasoned troops in different structuralcontexts, use this perspective to account more generally for socialsituations in which newcomers are involved in interaction witholdtimers. By abstracting from the concrete content of army life, theyexplain certain aspects of the behavior of newcomers--from immigrants tocollege freshmen--in terms of their relation to preexisting groups. Itfollows that the newcomer- oldtimer relationship, or the newcomer as asocial type, can now be understood as a particular form that canprofitably be studied through abstraction from the various concretesocial situations that are being observed. It is through suchabstraction from concrete social content that the building of a theorybecomes possible.
To Simmel, the forms found in social realityare never pure: every social phenomenon contains a multiplicity offormal elements. Cooperation and conflict, subordination andsuperordination, intimacy and distance all may be operative in a maritalrelationship or in a bureaucratic structure. In concrete phenomena,moreover, the presence of a multiplicity of forms leads to theirinterference with one another, so that none of them can ever be realizedin purity. There is no "pure" conflict in social life, just as there isno "pure" cooperation. "Pure" forms are constructs, that is, typicalrelationships never to be completely realized. Simmel's forms are notgeneralizations about aspects of reality, but they tend to heighten orto exaggerate "so as to bring out configurations and relations whichunderlie reality but are not factually actualized in it." The arthistorian may speak of "gothic" or "baroque" style, even though no knownwork of architecture exhibits all the elements of either style in alltheir purity; so too the sociologist may construct a "pure" form ofsocial conflict even though no empirically known process fully embodiesit. Just as Weber's ideal-type may be used as a measuring rod to helpcalculate the distance between a concrete phenomenon and the type, aSimmelian form--say, the typical combination of nearness and distancethat marks the relation of "the stranger" form the surroundingworld--may help gauge the degree of "strangerness" inherent in thespecific historical circumstances of, for example, the ghetto Jews orother pariah peoples.
From Coser, 1977:179-182.